Grover Norquist is the president of Americans for Tax Reform and the creator of the anti-tax pledge that nearly every Republican in Congress has signed. We spoke on Tuesday about the government shutdown and its consequences for his agenda. A transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.
Ezra Klein: So, do you think a shutdown is good for the issues and ideas you’re trying to push?
Grover Norquist: Not necessarily. I think the original plan for the Republicans was to move the continuing resolution past the debt ceiling and then to sit down with Obama and decide whether he would be willing to trade some relaxation of the sequester for significant reforms of entitlements. That was something Obama might well do. Democrats in the House and the Senate are very concerned about caps and limits in sequestration. Republicans could get significant long-term entitlement reform -- all on the spending side, I’m assured by leadership -- for some relaxation of sequester.
Something like that might’ve worked out. There was also the possibility, and I was an advocate, of pushing for delay. I thought Obama might do that. And even if he didn’t, I liked the idea of a two-month conversation over how Obama has delayed Obamacare for big business and big contributors and organized labor but not for you. So how about all Americans get treated equally and we have rule of law and delay everything? Obama was thoughtful enough to time Obamacare and its taxes to kick in after he was safely reelected. Those senators running in 2014 were not given the same courtesy. Why not give them that?
EK: That sounds like the strategy that got us the shutdown, though.
GN: No, the leverage isn’t the debt ceiling. It’s not the CR. It’s the sequester. Democrats think this is desperate privation. It’s like the Kennedy kids with only one six-pack. They feel they’ve never been so mistreated. So there’s something they want. And there’s something Republicans want. So you could see a deal there. And the leverage was the sequester. That’s what struck me as what leadership was thinking about, and it made a great deal of sense.
The second thought was to have a conversation over the one-year delay. A two-month conversation about delay would be healthy for the body politic. And maybe you’d get the delay. There’s no shame in the delay. Microsoft is always delaying Office. You could do it without humiliating the president.
But that’s not what we did. Ted Cruz, from left field, said we have to defund Obamacare permanently in this CR. If they offered the Keystone pipeline and the privatization of Fannie and Freddie you couldn’t take that. We only want this, and we only want it on Tuesday -- Wednesday is no good. The debt ceiling is no good. So that got locked in as a principle. And people went out on talk radio and said if you’re not for this you’re a coward, you’re a RINO.
EK: And that got in the way of the larger strategy?
GN: I’m cheerful because every Republicans is for repeal of Obamacare. When’s the last time we passed a big government entitlement and every Republican opposed it and kept pointing out that it’s a mistake? There’s unanimity among Republicans. They all voted against the thing being created and for it being repealed.
The only confusion that comes out is that Cruz stood on the side and confused people about the fact that every Republican agrees. He said if you don’t agree with my tactic and with the specific structure of my idea, you’re bad. He said if the House would simply pass the bill with defunding he would force the Senate to act. He would lead this grass-roots movement that would get Democrats to change their mind. So the House passed it, it went to the Senate, and Ted Cruz said, oh, we don’t have the votes over here. And I can’t find the e-mails or ads targeting Democrats to support it. Cruz said he would deliver the votes and he didn’t deliver any Democratic votes. He pushed House Republicans into traffic and wandered away.
So then the House said, breaking completely with Cruz because Cruz thinks if you’re not defunding the whole thing it’s treason, that there’s delay. There’s getting rid of medical device taxes. They’ve done a series of things to hold together Republicans and break with Cruz. But because we started with the Cruz approach this got to the shutdown.
EK: What do you think happens next?
GN: I think the president must think he can spin a government shutdown. I think he’s already screwed it up. Putting up barriers so guys in wheelchairs can’t go to the World War II memorial. It’s an open-air memorial. They put up those barriers in the middle of the night. They did it on overtime!
The president threatened not to pay the military. So Republicans passed the bill paying the military. Democrats threatened to not pay veterans. So Republicans are passing a bill to pay veterans. Democrats cannot with a straight face blame Republicans for any of the things that happen in these agencies. It’s the president playing politics. I think it puts him in an awkward position.
And now we have a series of Democrats running for the Senate trying desperately to show they’re not clones of Reid and Obama, and they just made them vote once again for Obamacare. Just to remind everybody. We have enough votes in the last few days showing these Democrats do what Harry Reid and Barack Obama want and not what North Carolina and Arkansas and Alaska want. I don’t think Reid’s paying attention to what he’s doing to his candidates.
Look, these were the guys who thought sequestration was a great win for them and who made 85 percent of the Bush tax cuts permanent. The Bush tax cuts were an upper hand he could have used to control the country for years. If he would have extended it for a year we’d be talking about whether there should be a tax increase right now. You shouldn’t spend too much time thinking you’re dealing with political geniuses here.
EK: Walk me through the endgame though. The day before the shutdown ends, what will have happened in Washington?
GN: Unlike some other institutions in this town, I work to give some reasonable advice to members of Congress and shape public opinion. But I don’t micromanage the negotiations of House and Senate guys with the White House or stand outside the negotiations and announce somebody should lay down a nonnegotiable demand with a tactic and a date attached to it.
Republicans have their principles. Let’s have health-care be more consumer-oriented, let’s not raise taxes, let’s reform government. I could imagine many things that would work inside those principles, but I’m not in Obama’s head. I don’t know how he values those things. If I were him I’d trade some money off the sequester today for reforms in entitlements that take place a long time from now. Those reforms will be done by somebody. You might as well get something for them. Someday Republicans will hold the White House and the Senate and they’ll pass the Ryan plan. You might as well get something for it.
EK: One aspect of this that you mention quite a bit, but that’s been somewhat lost in the debate, is that Republicans have really managed to hold the spending levels in the CR down. They’re below the original Ryan budget, for instance, and well below what President Obama and the Senate Democrats wanted. Yet Republicans feel like they’re failing because they’re focused on Obamacare. Do you think Republicans are winning on spending?
GN: Yes, absolutely. We won in 2011 and then again with the president making 85 percent of the Bush tax cuts permanent. We really did get caps and sequestration that limits government spending. If we just went home and put the government on autopilot it would be a win. This Republican Congress has made a fundamental shift in the size of government equation.
Sequester is the big win. It defines the decade. You still have to fix long-term entitlements, but the other team isn’t willing to do that. So you either wait for a Republican president and the Ryan plan or you get people so concerned about sequestration that they’re willing to come to the table and fix entitlements long-term.
EK: You say the other side isn’t willing to fix entitlements. But President Obama has a budget that includes chained-CPI. It includes the same level of Medicare savings that Ryan includes over the next decade. They’ve said they’re open to a deal on Social Security. They say the problem is that your side simply refuses to accept any tax increases -- even if it’s just in the form of cutting tax breaks -- as part of the deal and that that’s what is standing in the way of fixing entitlements.
GN: We’re in favor of phasing out any and all tax credits and deductions in return for lower rates. But we’re not for the effort by the administration to cripple tax reform by taking them and spending them.
The sequester changed the dynamic. You might’ve been able to sell some Republican bean counter on the idea that raising taxes and cutting spending are the same things because they reduce the deficit. But they’re not. We’re not raising taxes for entitlement reform. The Republican leadership has been very clear all along that no tax increase is on the table and if they did chained-CPI then the part of chained-CPI that’s a tax increase would have to be offset by rate reductions or tax cuts.
The administration asking us to raise taxes is not an offer; that’s not a compromise. That’s just losing. I’m in favor of compromise. When we did the $2.5 trillion spending restraint in the BCA, we wanted $6 trillion. I considered myself very compromised. Overly reasonable.